Failing and Freezing

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We are in the middle of a midwinter deep freeze. Lows of -42 Celsius overnight. I can remember very few winters that have been this cold as relatively far south as we are. My husband, who works in the real north, suffers through a few weeks of the -40 stuff every year but this is unusual for us. He’s in his truck right now, and I’m trying not to think about what will happen if he has truck or trailer problems. It’s unforgiving out there.

School busses are cancelled and the kids have a fort built in the living room. We’ll be hiding inside today. I’m going to make bread and do some writing. I really can’t complain.

But the cold has got me thinking about freezing. Not the freezing of fingers and toes and the tips of your nose, but that full body/brain freeze that only really happens because of fear. Fear of getting hurt, fear of looking stupid, fear of failure. You know the freeze I’m talking about. Would-be writers suffer from this all the time, myself included.

This thought started to solidify for me this winter when the kids started skating. We all bought skates, even though my husband and I haven’t been skating in 25 years. My husband didn’t do a lot of skating growing up and was never great at it (so he says). My dad has always played hockey, right up until he broke his ankle a few years ago (in his 60s!), and I learned to skate young. But when we got on the ice for the first time, I was the one who froze.

Ice is hard. And slippery. And I was exquisitely aware of how vulnerable I was in my now middle-aged body. It was terrifying. My husband, who is naturally athletic and, it seems to me sometimes, completely immune to fear of physical injury, took off. He was a little shaky at first, but pretty soon he was doing just as well as most people out there.

In the end, I did fall. I had a nice purple knee for a couple of weeks. But it took falling, and getting that fear out of the way, to allow me to move forward. It hurt, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I knew, suddenly, that I would survive if it happened again. And when you’re skating, my husband reminded me, you fall just as hard when you’re standing still and when you’re going fast. So you might as well pick up the pace! Next time we went, I wasn’t doing half bad. I still have to work on my technique and my ankle strength, but I’m not afraid to move and (mostly) not afraid to fall anymore.

With the kids, it was different. They’ve never skated before. It wasn’t all that long ago that they were learning how to walk. This was totally foreign and scary and they didn’t know how to handle it. My son, who has inherited my (lack of) athletic prowess, has been convinced since he was tiny that he will be a hockey player. That enthusiasm skips a generation, apparently. He envisioned himself as a pro. So the rude shock of having to learn how to do this thing, just like everyone else, was incredibly frustrating.

The first hour that we were out, the kids basically just fell over. Got up. Fell over again. They were in tears; I was nearly in tears (my knee really hurt!). My son kept saying, “How can I learn anything if all I do is fall down!” And I told him that every time he fell down, his body was learning what not to do. If you step like this you fall. If you lean like that you fall. And eventually, once it had eliminated a bunch of “wrong” motions, it would start to figure out the “right” ones.

I mean, I was just making that up. I didn’t want him to be frustrated. I honestly had my doubts that any of us would figure out this skating thing this year.

But sure enough, by the end of the two hours that we were on the ice, all three of the kids were shuffling around and mostly staying upright. And when they fell down, they were really good at getting themselves back up again.

Even more interesting was the fact that my son who, like I said, has my natural cautiousness and lack of athleticism, was doing much better than his twin sister who, despite the fact that she has my husband’s fearlessness and agility, quickly loses interest in things that don’t come easily. She doesn’t get angry or frustrated, she just moves on to the next thing, like running around the bleachers with her cousins.

To see my son skating, you’d think he was having a terrible time. His eyebrows were furrowed and he frowned in concentration. There were a lot of breaks and tears of frustration. But when the skates were off and we were back in the truck he lit up, and couldn’t stop talking about it. He had focused on his goal and powered through the challenges just out of sheer determination to be a hockey player. And maybe that’s just what he’ll do!

But guys. This story is not about my kids.

It’s about me. It’s about us. It’s about learning to love the struggle of getting better at the thing we are passionate about. It’s about failing, and failing repeatedly, because it’s the only way that we learn. When have you ever learned anything by being good at it already? Never. You might coast for a while on natural ability–that’s what I was doing when I chose to study English Literature in school–but eventually, if you want to grow, you have to fall on your face. You have to make mistakes. You have to try new things, and mess them up, and try again.

I’ve never actually enjoyed writing. Writing, at least in the draft stages, is a lot like hard manual labour. It is the equivalent of getting a shovel and digging until you find clay. Digging until you have enough clay that you are ready to make something. It’s the re-writing and the editing that is the real art, I think. That’s when the magic happens. That’s when you sculpt your lump of clay into what you want it to be. But you can’t edit a blank page. You can’t finesse the words you haven’t written yet. So sometimes you have to force yourself to sit down and write. You’ve got to dig.

You can’t let yourself worry about the what if. What if what I’m going to make will be no good? What if no one will like it? What if the thing I’m trying to say is derivative and pointless? That’s when you freeze. That’s when you get “writers block.”

Because none of that matters. If what you write is a bunch of rubbish, that’s fine. Then you go back and work it again. And the next time you try, it will come out a little closer to that piece of art you are envisioning in your head.

So I hope you aren’t freezing this winter. But I do hope that you fall on your face a couple of times and, more than anything, I hope you pick yourself up and try again.

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Science Fiction and “Otherness”

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I read a wonderful flash fiction piece the other day, by Jennifer Stephen Kapral called “The Alien in 36B.” In it, Kapral describes the experiences of an alien ambassador travelling by airplane with a bunch of humans and it is both funny and poignant. I loved the descriptions of the alien’s kaleidoscopic ability to see germs, and I think some of my germaphobic friends and readers will appreciate his disgust at being crammed into an archaic flying tin can with a bunch of coughing, sneezing, bacteria ridden humans.

However, what struck me most was the parallels between this alien’s experience with humans and the experience of immigrants, particularly visible minorities, in North America. Kapral expertly injects a sense of otherness that is so subtle I had to read it twice to catch all of it. The alien “[whose] bones felt heavy with the weight of being constantly watched” must consider his every word and gesture so as not to offend his co-passengers. In a polite, everyday type of conversation he “steeled himself, anticipating an insult.” Even something as simple as passing a drink to the woman next to him, which he doesn’t want to do because he is disgusted by the germs he can see on the cup, becomes a potential political battleground because “humans were extraordinarily talented at taking small, meaningless incidents and turning them into worldwide scandals.”

It made me think of the way we expect people to participate in daily rituals that seem harmless enough to us. Simple politeness can carry the weight of cultural expectations we take for granted. A handshake, a shared meal. To a person of a different religion or different culture, there may be a hundred socially ingrained rules they must break in order to appease out sense of “normalcy” or “politeness.”

I also wondered if it would take the sudden appearance of an alien species to finally make humans see that we are in fact more similar than we are different. Is that what it would take for us to really believe that we all belong to the so-called “human race.”

This kind of “otherness” is an integral part of the science fiction genre. In order to speculate about future worlds, species, societies, we must first be able to imagine ourselves as the Other. Some of the best SF writers today are minorities: women, people of colour, LGBTQ+, immigrants, people with disabilities, people with mental illness; I believe this is because writers who have experienced being “othered” by a majority have a better sense of the anxiety, fear, frustration, and loneliness that comes with being different. One of the reasons science fiction is so popular, I believe, is that it gives people a glimpse of a world that is so different that they can imagine themselves belonging there, when our own world seems to reject them.

What do you think? Have you ever experienced being “Other”? Do you feel that it helps you connect to science fiction as a reader (or a writer)? What did you think of the story? I hope you read it!

If you liked that story, and would like to read more, I highly recommend subscribing to Daily Science Fiction‘s newsletter, or at least checking out their site any time you want a quick read. I hope to see my own work up there some day, but I keep publishing it to my blog instead of submitting it. What a terrible habit!

Goodbye, Old Friend

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It has been 125 days. It seems like nothing. It seems like an eternity.

125 days ago I said goodbye to one of my oldest, dearest friends. One that has been with me for nearly every moment of celebration and triumph, every moment of chaos and despair, in my adult life–as inevitable as my shadow, with me so often that we became indistinguishable from one another.

Sometimes we come to rely on a friend more than we should. Sometimes friendship turns bitter and false, but it has been a part of our lives for so long that we refuse to see how twisted the relationship has become. Even once we recognize the toxicity of this “friend” it can still be hard to say goodbye. It is so easy to remember the good times, the warm glow of the early days. Maybe, if we just tried hard enough, we could forget the pain, the anxiety, the fear that has grown over the years, and embrace the love and warmth and happiness of the past.

But, of course we can’t. I couldn’t. So I said goodbye.

I haven’t had a drink in 125 days.

I hemmed and hawed over whether or not I would write about my sobriety here or not. It’s not exactly writing-related. And yet, I think there are a lot of us writers and creative folks who fall prey to alcohol and substance abuse. There is this idea that if we aren’t hurting we have nothing worthwhile to say. Sometimes we buy into that idea so much that we hurt ourselves, just to feel connected to something greater than ourselves. Pain, the human condition. If life isn’t difficult enough, we make it so.

Since I quit drinking I have become acutely aware of the many ways I had internalized alcohol as some inexorable aspect of my “self,” as if the ubiquitous glass of wine in my hand was an extension of my very being. Even once I began to see the negative impact that alcohol was having on my physical and emotional health, the idea of not drinking was terrifying to me. I’ve attempted to cut back, or “take a break” from drinking in the past. But I could never come to terms with the idea of giving it up completely. For ever. That was like trying to imagine cutting off my own arm. Sure, I might survive the amputation, but would I ever feel whole again?

I can’t pinpoint for you what changed, exactly. But in August I had a moment where I knew, I just knew, that I was done. I made the choice, not only to quit drinking, but to actively pursue sobriety as a lifestyle. I think this is what has made the difference for me. In actuality, “not drinking” is the easy part. Having to relearn who you are, experience and process emotions without a chemical safety-net, develop healthy coping mechanisms to replace the unhealthy ones… that’s the tough shit.

Learning how to write sober has been one of the hardest parts of all. I had come to rely on a glass or two of wine to shush the internal editor and get the ball rolling. I trained myself to “need” alcohol in order to write. Untraining myself has been difficult. I haven’t been as prolific as I would have liked in the last few months. However, I have made a few encouraging discoveries.

  1. I can shut up the internal editor just by sheer force of habit. Ass in chair. Write. Write shit if you have to. But if you start writing, eventually the shit runs out and you’ll have something usable.
  2. I actually write better sober. Shocker, I know. But the old “write drunk, edit sober” adage (that may or may not be correctly attributed to Hemingway) is a crock of shit. As far as I can tell, the need to write drunk is really just a symptom of lazy work habits.
  3. Editing is a hell of a lot less painful when your drafts are coherent.
  4. All of the actual mechanics of writing craft are easier when you are using your whole brain: structure, plotting, connecting themes and imagery… you name it, it’s easier sober.
  5. I eat better and I sleep better when I don’t drink. I don’t have anxiety attacks anymore. I exercise regularly. All of this makes me more competent, not just in writing, but in everything I do.

I’m not writing any of this in order to convince anyone else that sobriety is the right choice for them. Your relationship with alcohol (or any substance) is your own. Only you can decide if you need to make a change. If, however, any of what I’ve said here speaks to you I’m happy to offer whatever advice and support that I can. Please comment!

For those who are considering sobriety, or are just curious to read about addiction and neuroplasticity, I highly recommend reading “This Naked Mind” by Annie Grace and “The Biology of Desire” by Marc Lewis. The r/stopdrinking subreddit is a great source of information, advice, and support as well.

Thanks for reading!

“22XX: Escape Velocity” by Jelani Wilson

Welcome to Flash Fiction Friday!

FFF is a weekly feature to encourage readers to get into flash and short fiction. I’ll be using FFF to share some of my own short stories, and also to highlight the writing of other authors, new and established, who are looking to expand their audience. If you are a reader, please leave feedback! If you are an author, please contact me if you have a short story you’d like to see on “Sarah Does Sci-Fi.”

“22XX: Escape Velocity” by Jelani Wilson

They say it’s bad luck to be born on the dark side of the Moon. According to legend, it dooms you to die in space. I never really believed it even though people have been telling me that since I was little. I can’t help but wonder if that’s why I ended up where I am now, floating out here in space in a stolen shuttle with my best friend and my nanotech professor.

The good news is we’re on our way to Europa. We’ll be safe there. The bad news is space is fucking huge. Nothing like those vintage space operas where you can zip across galaxies between commercial breaks and extended monologues.

As if on cue, my best friend, Herb, ducks into the cockpit, his chubby face sagging, glum, and burned-out. Even his cybernetic optics manage look a little dim. He’s a much better prodigy than I am. He’s only in this mess because he got roped into the calamity I caused by choosing the wrong research to ‘revise’.

He yawns, his spiky hair wilting. “Thrusters are charged and ready.”

Professor Tsai scoots out from under the communications terminal. “Good, you two should get suited up.”

Herb motions to me as he leads the way down the cramped passage. The vacuum suits are racked behind the bunks. As the name implies, they keep you alive in space. The helmet has built-in phytoplankton air filters, emits a full-spectrum distress signal, and shields you from meteoroids and cosmic radiation – all while pumping you with enough survival meds to keep you alive for up 2500 standardized hours.

It’s honestly better to die. You’ll either be insane, in a coma, or maybe both after floating that long in the void.

Yo, you all right, Sasha?” Herb asks me as he puts on his helmet and clicks on the intercom.

Yeah, I just don’t like space travel,” I reply, my voice washed in static. “And there’s so much to think about. Even if we get to Europa, what are the chances of us ever being able to…

Go home again, finish school, have our lives back, and all that bullshit?” he says with a flippant yawn.

Well, uh, yeah...?”

He shakes his head at me like I’m an idiot and laughs. “Seriously, Sasha? Don’t you get it? We’re free! We’re finally fucking free!

Not what I was expecting.

No more exams, no more indoctrination, no more competition, no fucking pressure. Don’t you hate being treated like a scholarship magnet? The entire Solar System is ours to explore now. Hell, you’re about to see Delia, again.

He tosses me a disk-shaped compression canister I manage to catch without dropping.

He’s got a point.

So then, maybe it’s a good thing I reworked that abandoned nanotech research for my class project and ended up revealing a scientific breakthrough the military would kill for?

The only thing is my parents don’t treat me like scholarship magnet. They believe in me, even though I’m really not all that great for a kid who’s supposed to be a genius. If only I were as wary of my

academic sponsors as they were…

 

Click here to see the whole story on Pages Without Paper! –>>> http://wp.me/a5BP9Y-bm

61ur9c7oOsL.jpgIf you’d like to continue the adventure with Sasha and Herb, make sure you grab a copy of Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements which includes Jelani Wilson’s story “22XX: One Shot”

Whenever we envision a world without war, without prisons, without capitalism, we are producing speculative fiction. Organizers and activists envision, and try to create, such worlds all the time. Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown have brought twenty of them together in the first anthology of short stories to explore the connections between radical speculative fiction and movements for social change. The visionary tales of Octavia’s Brood span genres—sci-fi, fantasy, horror, magical realism—but all are united by an attempt to inject a healthy dose of imagination and innovation into our political practice and to try on new ways of understanding ourselves, the world around us, and all the selves and worlds that could be. The collection is rounded off with essays by Tananarive Due and Mumia Abu-Jamal, and a preface by Sheree Renée Thomas.

Writing full-time again… Damn, it feels good!

Yes! More than a quarter of the way done my first draft of Book 2...
Yes! More than a quarter of the way done my first draft of Book 2…

Just a quick update on my progress this week… It is my first week of writing full time since I really buckled down on The Timekeepers’ War. And it feels incredible. I didn’t meet my goal of 5 full days this week. I helped my sister move and had family visiting. But I am sitting at 90 good, usable pages of my first draft. Not a rough draft. A real draft. I will likely do one round of edits before submitting to my publisher, and one round with my editor before it goes to print. If I am able to keep this pace my goal of having a complete draft by the end of November is completely attainable! And that means we should have The Children of Bathora in our hot little hands by next summer. That’s great. Because I promised a lot of people that TKW Book 2 would be out by next Comic and Entertainment Expo!

Also, my latest Goodreads Giveaway had a record number of submissions. Over 1700 people entered to win a copy of The Timekeepers’ War and I just spend the last half hour signing, packaging and addressing books to send around the globe. The winners were from the United States and Canada, as well as Germany, Great Britain, Australia, the Philippeans, and India. It’s so exciting to imagine my book in the hands of people across the world. I hope it is well received!

That is all for now. Wish me luck for week two! My goal is to make it to 150 pages…

It has begun…

Writing of Book 2 in the Timekeepers' War trilogy has begun in earnest. The Children of Bathora will be finished before the end of the year!
Writing of Book 2 in the Timekeepers’ War trilogy has begun in earnest. The Children of Bathora will be finished before the end of the year!

Sometimes the hardest part of writing is actually just sitting down and doing it. Unless you are lucky enough to already be making a living off your trade, writing often takes a back seat to other obligations. Life tends to intrude on what precious time is left for writing. At least, that’s how it goes with me.

I have managed, in the year since The Timekeepers’ War was released (August 2014), to do some extensive planning for Book Two in the trilogy. I’ve told this story a hundred times, in a hundred different ways, without ever actually committing a word to paper. But I’m mentally much more prepared to write The Children of Bathora than I ever was it’s predecessor. The Timekeepers’ War evolved organically. I let the characters and the situations write themselves.

It was an interesting, if wasteful, process. I ended up cutting over 50K words from my first draft to the version that actually went to print. The trouble with free-writing and entire novel is that you end up spending a lot of time and energy on writing scenes for yourself, rather than your reader. A lot of thought and detail went into building the City and its History that never made it into the finished book. I needed it to write the rest but, as I learned in the editing process, the reader didn’t need it to understand the story. All those details that were so necessary to my writing process simply bogged the reader down, and robbed them of their own vision.

This time I’m trying a different tack. Last week I completed a point form summary of the entire plot. Yes, and even wrote it down! I’ve honestly never written with an outline in mind. This is new to me. Even in my university days, I wrote long research papers without a concrete idea of where I was going with my thesis until I got there. Then I used the editing process to make the whole thing coherent. It usually worked.

The trouble is, I don’t have ten years to write my next novel. Not if I actually want to be a writer of any prolificacy (is that a real word?) So I need to do things differently this time around.

I wrote the first 100 pages of The Children of Bathora before I even found a publisher for The Timekeepers’ War. I needed something else to do besides hounding agents and publishers, and I knew the story wasn’t finished yet. I was still on a roll. But after those initial ideas ran their course, I realized I didn’t really know where I was going with Book Two yet. I didn’t want to have to cut 50K words from another novel. As cathartic as the process was, it would be better to have not wasted all that time and energy in the first place.

Since then, I’ve been mulling it over. I’ve been telling myself this story, and playing with alternative plot lines, and trying to get a feel for the next stage in Ghost and Lynch’s adventure. I even toyed with the idea of shifting the locus of the story from Ghost to someone new. Last week, something clicked. I found the piece that was missing to tie everything together, the thread I needed to pull to tighten everything up. That’s when I wrote the summary.

Today was my first full day of writing. 8:00am-4:30. A quick break for lunch and eight solid hours of work. It feels amazing!

Not only that, but I realize that much of my initial draft is usable. I’ve chopped, re-ordered, and re-written the first 25 pages. If I can keep up this pace with recycling the original draft, I should have the first third of the book done by the end of the week. The last two thirds will be a little slower going, since I will be doing new writing rather than reworking old. But knowing where the plot is going makes me confident that the process will be much smoother this time around.

My goal is to have a completed first draft by the end of November, with The Children of Bathora submitted to Bedlam Press at the beginning of the new year. My mother-in-law is kindly staying with us for a month (or more?) so that I can write full time, while she spends some quality time with the grandchildren and makes sure I don’t starve to death. It is an amazing gift! And it means I can’t procrastinate, which is just what I need.

So here’s to writing full-time. It’s been a couple of years, but the groove is still there. I am looking forward to this!

S.C. Jensen @ Goodreads’ “Ask the Author”

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Hello everyone!

I apologize for my absence the last few weeks. I had an unexpected hospital stay (don’t worry, everything is fine!) Now that I’m home again, and everything is settled, I am hoping to get back to business. I will be answering reader questions on Goodreads’ “Ask the Author” feature until the end of January. Please sign up or log in and fire away! Thanks!

Hot Off the Press!

It's here!
It’s here!

It’s been many years in the making, but I’ve finally got a box of my very first published book! It’s actually starting to feel real now 🙂 I am still looking for reviewers, if you are interested. Please contact me through wordpress or at scatphillips@gmail.com if you’d like to give it a shot. Thanks for your interest!

Buy The Timekeepers’ War Today!

 

Available Now!
Available Now!

A huge “Thank You!” to everyone who is still waiting by for the release of my novel, The Timekeepers’ War. Your patience has finally been rewarded! The eBook is available here: on amazon and smashwords. Paperbacks are available on amazon and through my publisher, Bedlam Press. If you are interested in a limited edition signed hardcover, you can snag one of them at Bedlam as well! There are only 25 of them, though, so you’d better hurry!

If you are a member of Goodreads, you can try your hand at winning a review copy through the Goodreads Giveaway program. The contest runs until September 12, 2014. Please share!

Thanks again to everyone who has been waiting so patiently. I can’t wait to hear your feedback!